Science Interest Development in Early Childhood

January 1st, 2016

This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Interest is a fundamental motivator of behavior and learning, driving humans to explore the world around them and reengage with specific topics, objects, and activities (Hidi & Renninger, 2006; National Research Council, 2005, 2009; Renninger, 2007; Silvia, 2006). In the past, much of the research on interest has focused on older children (e.g., Ainley & Ainley, 2011; Barron, 2006; Frenzel, Goetz, Pekrun, & Watt, 2010). However, there is growing recognition that the foundations of interest development, including science-related interests, begin in early childhood and potentially shape how children learn and develop in elementary school and beyond (Alexander, Johnson, & Kelley, 2012; Leibham, Alexander, & Johnson, 2013; Renninger & Su, 2012; Rowe & Neitzel, 2010).

Over the last several decades, researchers have documented how young children develop interests related to science before they enter school and how these interests influence learning and behaviors in the short term (e.g., DeLoache, Simcock, & Macari, 2007; Renninger, 1989, 2007). More recently, investigators are exploring the factors that influence early childhood science-related interest development and the long-term implications of these interests, including gender differences in science learning and engagement (e.g., Alexander et al., 2012; Leibham et al., 2013; Maltese & Tai, 2010; Pattison, 2014).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Example Research Project

Building on the four-phase model of interest development (Hidi & Renninger, 2006) and the biolecological model of human development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2007), Pattison and Dierking (Pattison, 2014) conducted a two-phased, mixed-method study to explore the proximal processes of parent-child interactions that potentially contribute to early childhood science interest development and begin to identify important contextual factors influencing these processes. In phase one, 138 English- and Spanish-speaking parents of Head Start children completed a questionnaire designed to assess their childrearing beliefs and science-related attitudes, interests, and learning behaviors. In phase two, questionnaire data were used to recruit seven parents, with varying levels of science interest, and their four-year-old daughters. Parent-daughter dyads were observed and videotaped in four everyday contexts in which science-related discourse was likely to be elicited: (1) engaging with an in-home, science-related activity, (2) reading a science-related book together, (3) visiting the early childhood learning space at a science center, and (4) participating in one activity the family identified as science related, such as a walk to a botanical garden. Parents were also interviewed twice during the project.

Analyses of phase two data provided details about parent beliefs and interests and how these may directly influence parent-child interactions and young children’s developing science interests. Across the seven families, parents reported evidence of children’s developing interests sparked by the project sessions. However, only half of the families reported evidence of sustained interests that extended beyond the specific materials or activities presented during the sessions. Those parents who reported broad sustained interests in their children were also more likely to report a higher personal enjoyment of science, demonstrate deep reflection and awareness of children’s interests during the interviews, be more actively involved during the sessions, and be more successful at re-engaging their children when they lost interest or became distracted. These findings suggest hypothesis to test in future studies about the relationship between parent beliefs, parent-child interactions, and early childhood science-related interest development.


Ainley, M., & Ainley, J. (2011). Student engagement with science in early adolescence: The contribution of enjoyment to students’ continuing interest in learning about science. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36(1), 4–12.

Alexander, J. M., Johnson, K. E., & Kelley, K. (2012). Longitudinal analysis of the relations between opportunities to learn about science and the development of interests related to science. Science Education, 96(5), 763–786.

Barron, B. (2006). Interest and self-sustained learning as catalysts of development: A learning ecology perspective. Human Development, 49(4), 193–224.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). Ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2007). The bioecological model of human development. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (pp. 793–828). Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved from

DeLoache, J. S., Simcock, G., & Macari, S. (2007). Planes, trains, automobiles-and tea sets: Extremely intense interests in very young children. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1579–1586.

Frenzel, A. C., Goetz, T., Pekrun, R., & Watt, H. M. G. (2010). Development of mathematics interest in adolescence: Influences of gender, family, and school context. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 20(2), 507–537.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, K. A. (2006). The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111–127.

Leibham, M. E., Alexander, J. M., & Johnson, K. E. (2013). Science interests in preschool boys and girls: Relations to later self-concept and science achievement. Science Education, 97(4), 574–593.

Maltese, A. V., & Tai, R. H. (2010). Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of early interest in science. International Journal of Science Education, 32(5), 669–685.

National Research Council. (2005). How students learn: Science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2009). Learning science in informal environments: People, places, and pursuits. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Pattison, S. A. (2014). Exploring the foundations of science interest development in early childhood. Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR. Retrieved from

Renninger, K. A. (1989). Individual patterns in children’s play interests. In L. T. Winegar (Ed.), Social interaction and the development of children’s understanding (pp. 147–172). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp.

Renninger, K. A. (2007). Interest and motivation in informal science learning. Learning Science in Informal Environments Commissioned Paper. Board on Science Education, The National Academies. Retrieved from

Renninger, K. A., & Su, S. (2012). Interest and its development. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation (pp. 167–187). Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Rowe, D. W., & Neitzel, C. (2010). Interest and agency in 2- and 3-year-olds’ participation in emergent writing. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 169–195.

Silvia, P. J. (2006). Exploring the psychology of interest. New York: Oxford University Press.